Some rental cars today seem as complicated as the latest tax laws. Since neither math nor mechanics are my God-given talents, encountering either is a challenge for me. You see, when I travel for work, I typically use Uber or Lyft. I love that everything is handled through the app, including the exchange of currency. When a speaking engagement is more than an hour from the airport, though, it usually makes sense for me to rent a car. Recently, I was traveling in Michigan and picked up a very comfortable mid-size car. You’ll rarely see me take advantage of the upgrade for a sporty Mercedes unless they’ve run out of the modest midsized cars. Just like my shoes, I like sensible rental cars. At this point in my life, I don’t need to impress anyone and I sure don’t need to pay the higher cost for an imported quarter panel when I grind the side of my car across a pillar in the parking garage. Not that it’s happened (at least, not recently).
A few weeks ago, I rented a car in Michigan that had way too much technology. In fact, it was too smart for my own good. For instance, when I first started it up, I couldn’t get the climate control system to work properly. Every time I set the “Auto” button to a comfortable temperature, the car began blasting cold air to the point that I could feel frostbite starting to creep into my toes. So, I tried to adjust the fan manually and I even tried syncing and un-syncing the passenger side temperature control, just in case the car thought I had an invisible passenger who was overheated. Nothing seemed to work. Eventually, I just turned the whole system off and tried to moderate the temperature by lowering the window whenever the sun heated the the car to my body’s sweat point threshold.
Once the climate control issue had been MacGyver’d, I settled in for the ninety-minute drive to my hotel. The first few miles were uneventful. The road was busy but I was comfortably in the flow of traffic. Then when I hit a less crowded highway, I put the car in cruise control, and took my foot off the pedal. About ten minutes later, I noticed that my forearms were aching. While my morning exercise routine was quite robust, I certainly didn’t overwork my forearms. That’s when I realized that I was gripping the wheel tighter than usual because the car seemed to be fighting my efforts to steer. As I flipped through several dozen dashboard settings, I couldn’t find an option to override the “Combatant Steering Wheel.” Eventually, I asked Siri for suggestions and she told me that the car was using lane technology to keep me inside the lines on my side of the road. What kind of world do we live in where a car knows which part of the lane I should be in and my phone knows that it knows? What if there was a pothole in my path or a rabid skunk wandering aimlessly towards me. I think I might want to use my own maneuvering techniques to avoid such obstacles. Apparently my car did not. At least that’s what Siri said.
Rental cars don’t usually have user’s manuals so I had no idea how to turn off the lane control mechanism. As I continued to wrestle the wheel, I actually wondered if the car would stay in the lane by itself. So, as any curious idiot would do, I took my hands off the wheel. To my surprise, the car stayed right between the lines as I rolled down the highway. I am not suggesting anyone do this because as we all know, we’re supposed to have both hands on the wheel at 10:00 and 2:00 (for us old folks) or 4:00 and 8:00 (for the younger crowd). But even if there were any doubts about this, my car reminded me with a shrill alarm and a message on the dashboard screen that said, “HEY, WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? DO NOT TAKE YOUR HANDS OFF THE DAMN WHEEL!” I admit that I was a little perturbed that my car knew what I had done. I didn’t bother to ask Siri if she knew.
Anyway, I continued on my journey and alternated hands to give my forearms a rest. Just as I was relaxing into the trip, I encountered yet another smart technology feature. While in cruise control mode, my car would suddenly slow down if I came within five hundred yards of another car. I don’t know who chose this distance but I’m pretty sure it was more than enough to avoid rear ending the car in front of me should it stop suddenly. But again, I had no say in the matter. The car also slowed down when the speed limit changed and apparently, whenever it detected any kind of threat whatsoever. So, all the way to my hotel, the car slowed down, sped up, slowed down, and then sped up again. Other drivers were looking at me the same way we look at those cars with a “Student Driver” sign on the roof.
Finally, I made it to my hotel without incident and parked my smart-aleck car in the lot. In my haste to get checked in, I inadvertently turned the engine off before putting the car in park. My car did not like that one bit. A loud beeping sound came from somewhere under the dash. I quickly put the car in park but the beeping got louder. I got out and tried to lock the car using the fob. I was hoping the car would realize that everything was OK and I was outside of the car and heading inside. This set off a different alarm. At this point, I was scanning the parking lot for an auto mechanic or anyone who might be married to one. No one was there. So, as one final attempt to quiet the alarms, I got back in the car, started the engine, shifted the car in drive, put it back in park, and then turned off the engine. All the beeping stopped and a pleasant voice said, “Don’t forget your keys.” A few thoughts came to my mind but I did not say them out loud.
Two days later, when it was time to return home, I left the hotel before sunup. As I retraced my steps to the airport, the bright lights on my car kept dimming on their own every time I got to an intersection. It took me several intersections to realized that the car was mistaking street lights for oncoming cars. So, attempting to be helpful, it would dim the headlights to avoid blinding any of the oncoming, well, street lights. Duh. Without any way to disable this auto dimming feature, my bright lights flashed on and off like a strobe all the way to the airport. I’m just glad I’m not susceptible to seizures.
All in all, my trip was fairly uneventful. But the behavior of my car gave me pause. I certainly support advancing technology and embrace the safety features that can help us navigate our way through life. But I couldn’t help thinking that ultimately, we, as the drivers, should have the last word. I mean, look at our world today. There are too many examples of people who don’t take responsibility for their actions. We certainly don’t need “smart” cars that encourage us to do the same.
Ironically, as I’m typing this, my computer is suggesting a different phrasing for that last paragraph. Maybe I should ask my car what it thinks.